Tag Archives: editing

What editors need to know when asking authors questions

The Art of Querying, a new CIEP course, is on its way. Its creator, Gerard M-F Hill, gives
us a speedy tour through questions and queries, and what the course offers editors
and proofreaders.

Is the current King of France bald?

Questions are of many kinds, and not all of them are good questions – or even answerable.

Whatever you edit – advert, magazine, novel or research paper – you soon start asking yourself questions. What does this mean? Where did those come from? How am I supposed to know that? Is that all? Or even just: why? Of course queries should be clear and concise, but it’s good to be constructive too. What makes a good query?

Before you fire off a query, ask yourself what the problem is. You need to have a reason for asking, because the author may not think it is a problem at all. You first identify the problem by analysing what is bothering you. As a result, you will craft a better question and often you will identify an answer (or answers); then the author just needs to say yes (or no, not exactly … more like this).

Might I suggest?

As queries take up the author’s time (as well as yours), it is only common courtesy to keep them as few and as short as possible. So you need criteria to decide when to ask a question, and you also need a range of suitable formulas that you can adapt for each situation. Good questions will help to ensure that you get a usable answer.

Queries can be short, but they don’t have to be abrupt. It pays to be diplomatic. There are good ways to approach an author, to frame a question and to follow up an incomplete answer – and there are some even better ways.

Does it match the brief/blurb?

Who is this publication for? What will readers want to know? What will they expect to find? What are they expected to know already? Will they know all these facts, names, words, idioms, allusions or connections? Will they resent the presentation as either patronising or trivialising?

As an editor, you ask yourself such questions because they are a big part of the expertise that you offer and that your client is paying for. A publisher does not wish to hear of such defects from unimpressed reviewers or disenchanted readers.

Does it make sense?

What is the writer trying to say? Are they getting their message across? Does it make sense? Why is this different from that? You ask yourself such questions on behalf of the reader, who should not be left to wonder and has no way of asking the author to explain.

If it doesn’t make sense, if the plot or proposition doesn’t add up, if defective grammar is stuffed with malapropisms or other unsuitable words, the reader will soon drift off and never return. The editor aims to prevent any such crisis by smoothing the reader’s path so they can be informed, educated or entertained without being tripped up, distracted or misled.

Are you happy with this?

Where possible, make it easy for the author by presenting your query as a simple choice: A or B? This, that or the other? Would this [rewritten sentence] represent what you are saying?

Have forgotten something?

It’s easy to see that ‘you’ is missing in that sentence. It’s not so easy to spot when a whole topic or aspect of a piece, or the dénouement of a subplot, has been overlooked. The questioning editor keeps a lookout for content that the reader may be expecting, but which is not there.

Easy questions

Why is water wet? This penetrating question from a thoughtful child nonetheless demonstrates that ‘the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer’, though children are not fools. The saying is often attributed to King James I and VI.

In checking the reference (as all good authors should) I found to my surprise that the aphorism did not come from the wisest fool in Christendom, but from Charles Caleb Colton’s Lacon, published in 1820. In non-fiction, references – inadequate, unconvincing, mangled or missing – usually generate half your queries.

Here’s the answer!

Between 2010 and 2019 I regularly ran a session at the SfEP conference on The Art of Querying, and since then I have been expanding this workshop into an online course. It begins with the whole question of questions. For a start, what do you need to ask yourself? Can your author query be answered at all? Is there only one way to answer it? Could it be misinterpreted? Does the text assume the answer to an unspoken question?

The course next looks at questions to ask the project manager, with a checklist, and how and when to approach the author, with examples of how to do it and what not to do. This section discusses practicalities, from typefaces to time zones, alongside the principles and professional ethics that underlie all editorial queries. It Looks Funny examines your five options before you ask anything, followed by advice on formulating queries and notes, with six rules to help you.

Readers struggle with four major problems – inconsistency, ambiguity, omission and error – and each of these topics has a whole section of the course to itself. Different types of content have their own pitfalls, so there are sections devoted to prelims, narrative and argument, vocabulary and terminology, references, tables and artwork.

The Art of Querying is meant to be instructive, stimulating and enjoyable while extending your editing knowledge and skills, with lots of questions (and answers), well over a hundred real-life examples, copious but concise study notes and a variety of exercises to let you think through different solutions, along with a decision tool to determine whether and what to query, six rules you can follow and a dozen checklists for you to download and use. The Art of Querying is also (I hope) a good read and good fun!

Find out more about The Art of Querying

About Gerard M-F Hill

After several years teaching and 16 years driving heavy lorries, Gerard retrained as an indexer and copyeditor. Since 1990 he has worked on over 500 books and mentored over 100 proofreaders.

As a director of SfEP (2007–16) he devised the basic editorial test used by CIEP and as chartership adviser (2016–20) he worked with the chair, Sabine Citron, to obtain the institute’s Royal Charter.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: question mark by Emily Morter; Answers 1km by Hadija Saidi, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Should I volunteer when I’m starting out?

Wherever you are in your editing or proofreading career, taking on voluntary work can benefit you and others. But, as many who have done it will tell you, it’s not without its snares and snags. With the help of some generous CIEP members who have shared their experiences, in this article we’ll look at how volunteering can work when you’re starting out. We’ll also suggest some questions that you should ask yourself before you start offering your valuable time for free. In a future CIEP blog, we’ll look at how volunteering works when you’re established in your editing or proofreading career.

Below we’ll cover:

  • Discovering a taste for what you enjoy
  • Learning with less pressure
  • Declaring yourself
  • Getting your foot in the door
  • Using voluntary work for membership upgrades
  • Four questions to ask yourself before you volunteer

Discovering a taste for what you enjoy

Unpaid work is the way that many proofreaders and editors start – in fact, it can be how they realise they have an aptitude and enthusiasm for what will later become their career. Perhaps a friend, knowing you’re good with words, asks you to check the grammar and punctuation in their thesis, and halfway through you think: ‘I’m really enjoying this!’

Learning with less pressure

Once you’ve done your basic training, volunteering can help you test your new editing or proofreading skills and learn a few more without the stresses that could come from being paid. One of our members described the voluntary jobs she had taken on since completing her CIEP Proofreading courses – proofreading two series of short stories, some poetry and three website articles – and the impressive set of new and improved skills she acquired in the process:

  • increasing her competence and confidence in using Track Changes and Find and Replace, and starting to explore Word Styles
  • learning how to save a web page as a PDF, and practising using the Adobe Comments tools
  • using PerfectIt and other macros for the first time
  • compiling a style sheet to use as a template
  • keeping a record of time spent and work carried out, which helped her calculate her average proofreading speeds.

This member has appreciated the time and space that volunteering allows for growing into a new career:

I am finding this period of focusing on voluntary work to be hugely beneficial. With each job I develop new skills or learn about new tools which I can incorporate into my practice. As an Entry-Level Member, I like not having the pressure of being paid – for now!

At the same time, however, she hasn’t lost sight of the ultimate plan – to get paid work:

I am also building up a little bank of testimonials which I can use on my website, and at least two of the clients have said they will recommend me to friends and colleagues.

Declaring yourself

Sometimes you might be volunteering in a different arena from editing and proofreading, but if you tell the people you meet what you usually do for a living, more relevant volunteering work could come your way. One member says:

My daughter is a pharmacy dispensing technician at a village medical centre near to us. During the summer of last year, they were looking for volunteers to step up and help manage visitors attending for their flu jab, along with those attending for other medical appointments and pharmacy collections. Always happy to help out, up went my hand, into which was promptly thrust a high-vis jacket.

When asked what I would normally be doing, I was happy to tell folks that I’m a novice proofreader and occasional copywriter. The next thing I knew, my lovely daughter came home from work with a bottle of red in one hand and the medical centre’s newly penned ‘Team Handbook’ in the other.

Always remember, though, that if you’re accepting ‘payment in kind’, such as wine, you need to declare yourself to the tax office, too. Sue Littleford, our columnist on business matters, explains:

Had the CIEP member’s bottle of red wine been handed over for some proofreading, it would have been a ‘payment in kind’ and yes, it’s taxable. He’d have had to put the cash value of the wine in his accounts.

Getting your foot in the door

Getting paid in wine, or cake/casseroles/bedding plants if any of those are more your thing, is great, but at some point you’ll need to get some paying clients. One member described how this happened for her:

When my youngest was a baby (2012), I was involved with my local NCT branch. I worked with the newsletter team, and somehow took on the role of getting 700+ printed copies of this booklet distributed to local members every quarter!

I carried on proofreading for the branch long after I’d left my NCT days behind. It was only about five hours’ work a quarter, but it was great experience and something regular to look forward to while I was starting out.

Then last year, someone I knew from that time contacted me through LinkedIn. She remembered what I’d done with the NCT newsletter and thought I’d be a perfect fit for a project she was leading on at work. I’ve now had 8–9 months of consultancy work through this company on two different projects, helping me towards my most profitable year by far!

It’s not going to work quite like that for everyone every time, and this won’t last forever for me. But I do think that doing those little jobs on a voluntary basis can sow the seeds in people’s minds, and you never know when they might need you for something different (and paid). It shows people what you can do and how you work, and they’ll remember that.

Another member says:

When I started my freelance proofreading business last July, I contacted many companies and charities offering my services for free in exchange for a testimonial, as I felt this was the best way to gain experience and also increase my exposure in the form of having recommendations to hand.

I had a few positive responses, one of which was from Kathy Bishop, the editor of the Catholic magazine The Faith Companion.

Kathy’s initial response was that she would be happy to help me out as everyone ‘needs a helping hand’, and that she would send me a couple of articles to work on for the next issue, but she wanted to make it clear that they weren’t looking to take anyone on. I replied saying that wasn’t a problem at all, I was just happy with the opportunity to gain some experience and increase my hours.

I now have The Faith Companion as a regular client for the foreseeable future, and I really don’t think this would have happened if I hadn’t originally offered my services on a voluntary basis.

Using voluntary work for membership upgrades

Can voluntary hours count towards a CIEP membership upgrade? They can, if you’re using certain core skills and applying for a certain level. Professional standards director Lucy Metzger says:

For someone seeking an Intermediate Member (IM) grade, it’s fine for some or all of their 100 hours of work experience to be voluntary, and we wouldn’t expect it to be done for a traditional publisher. Some paid proofreading or copyediting work would strengthen the IM application overall, but it’s not a requirement.

However, in order for volunteer work to be counted in an IM application, it still needs to be work using what we call our ‘core skills’ – proofreading and/or copyediting. If a person’s voluntary work has included non-editorial tasks, as well as some core skills work, we would count only the number of hours using the core skills.

For upgrading to Professional (PM) or Advanced Professional (APM), the core skills work experience needs to be for publishers who understand the standards we are looking for in the core skills. If the work is for another body whose core business isn’t publishing (a ‘non-publisher’) the applicant’s experience can be validated by passing the Institute’s editorial test. If a previous application for IM relied mostly on voluntary hours, those hours would most likely be for non-publishers, which would count in a later application for PM or APM only with a test pass, demonstrating that the applicant had the required level of expertise in the core skills.

Four questions to ask yourself before you volunteer

So far, so good, then. However, there are some important questions to ask yourself before you take the plunge and offer your services for free. These questions are taken from an archived blog about volunteering written by a previous blog coordinator, Tracey Roberts.

1. Who should you volunteer with?

Not all charities or non-profit organisations need free help, so do your homework: ‘many charities have healthy budgets’, as Tracey points out. You could follow your interests, and volunteer to proofread or edit something in the fields of gardening, poetry, politics, sport or history, for example. There may be a newsletter for a club or organisation you belong to that you could help with. Some of our members edit their local church magazine.

2. What will you get out of it?

‘This is important,’ says Tracey. ‘If the person or organisation you are volunteering for doesn’t know what’s required of a good editor or proofreader, how valuable will their testimonial really be?’ Tracey makes another very valid point which touches on an aspect that many editors and proofreaders have been burned by: ‘Working for a client (or especially a friend) who doesn’t understand the process (and while you are still learning yourself) could turn into a tricky or negative experience.’ So make sure you go in with open eyes.

3. What skills do you want to practise?

If you want to work in fiction editing, look for experience there. If your aim is to be a scientific editor, volunteer to proofread a PhD thesis in biology.

4. How much time are you happy to provide?

Tracey explains:

In the early stages of your freelance career you will be busy building your new business and need time to develop your marketing strategy, website etc. Any time spent volunteering must fit around the creation of your new freelance business, and other important personal commitments, to ensure a healthy work–life balance is maintained.

Remember too that if you work for a client for free, or even a reduced rate, it will be very difficult to start charging at full rate when asked to take on future projects.

So remember not to overwhelm yourself, and as time passes think carefully about the balance between your unpaid and paid work. As your career matures, however, there’s no reason why you should give up volunteering if it’s still benefiting you and your business. In our second related blog, we’ll look at what you can get out of volunteering when you’re more established.

Written by the CIEP information team. With thanks to the CIEP members who generously shared their experiences.

About the CIEP information team

Abi Saffrey, Liz Jones, Margaret Hunter, Cathy Tingle

Liz Jones, Abi Saffrey and Cathy Tingle are the CIEP’s information commissioning editors. If there’s a topic that you would like to see covered in a blog post, fact sheet, focus paper or guide, drop the team a line at infoteam@ciep.uk.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: welcome by Andrew Neel; raise your paw by Camylla Battani, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Wise owls: how long does it take to edit something?

We asked our parliament of wise owls, all Advanced Professional Members, about editing speeds: how long does it take to edit or proofread something? What’s fast or slow, and is that even the right question?

Hazel Bird

Few topics in the editorial world are more prone to oversimplification than editing speeds. I suspect some of this comes from clients, for whom a supposedly ‘standard’ speed might be either (more positively) a helpful starting point for fee negotiations or (more negatively) a crude tool used to push back against requests for fee increases. The most extreme example of the latter I ever encountered was when years ago, as a very new proofreader struggling with hideously messy proofs, I told the client how quickly I was working – a speed I now know with experience was reasonable – and was informed that they ‘knew children who could read more quickly than that’ (and yes, they did say ‘read’ rather than ‘proofread’). I was far too timid to respond with any fortitude at the time, so please forgive me the self-indulgence of this delayed public catharsis.

So, clients may have an idea of how quickly we should be working, and that idea may or may not be based on sound knowledge of what professional editorial work entails. However, as editors and proofreaders, we care about this too. We naturally want to know how our speed compares to that of our colleagues. And speed = time and time = money, so knowing how quickly we edit is vital to ensuring we are quoting appropriately.

Looking back at my records of over 600 projects, I’ve clocked up editing speeds between 250 words per hour and (very occasionally) 10,000. Clearly, then, it would be nonsensical to refer to ‘my editing speed’ in the singular, but it would also be pointless to think of either extreme as ‘slow’ or ‘fast’. For example, 500 words per hour seems slow on the face of it, but it might be fast for especially complex editing of text by someone writing in their second (or third or fourth) language with structural changes.

Thinking about your editing speed is crucial, but ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ are only relevant as far as you can contextualise them within your own work – its difficulty, detail, workflow and so on. And, equally, before you compare your speed with that of another editor, make sure you understand what you’re comparing yourself against – in essence, what kind of work the other editor does.

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford

There are two ways of looking at speed: how many words per hour you can deal with, and how intensively you can keep going. Do you spread a five-hour job over two days, a week, or get it all done in one day? Nor will your speed be consistent over all the stages of a job. I take longer per word checking and fixing bibliographies than the running text.

My own belief is that the right speed is the fastest speed you can safely go while fulfilling the brief, giving good customer service and maintaining your own equilibrium.

It’s pretty obvious that speed is dependent on four things:

  • the condition of the manuscript
  • what the client wants you to do to it, and how many times
  • your own expertise, and
  • everything else, by which I mean the way that life gets in the way of work and sometimes work gets in the way of other work.

Because of these four factors, it’s not usually sensible to try to compare your speed with other people’s except in the most general way. What you can usefully do, though, is keep records of your own speeds. If you’ll pardon me a plug for the Going Solo Toolkit for CIEP members (you’ll need to be logged in), the Work record spreadsheet helps you to collect all the information about a job that will give you a feel for your range of speeds for a given type of work, as influenced by those four factors.

Finally, don’t be seduced by the idea of an average – my fastest is three times my slowest, so I need to discover factors 1 and 2 in order to be able to give a decent quote.

Liz Jones

In my experience, it’s helpful to be able to think two things at once about editing speeds. First, it is definitely useful to have an idea of how long it takes you to proofread or copyedit a particular number of words. This will be an average figure, depending on the state of the original text, but having such a figure to refer to will help when it comes to quoting for work.

But at the same time as it’s useful to have benchmark figures in mind, it’s also important to remember that they mean nothing. Every project is different, every author is different, every brief is different, every budget is different (unless you’re working on a series of similar documents for the same client). Crucially, every editor is different. Faster editing isn’t necessarily better editing, although very slow editing is likely to cost either your client or you dearly.

When I’m mentoring editors, I tell them that in the beginning, it’s better to focus on accuracy than speed. You don’t ever stop focusing on accuracy, of course, but the speed does improve of its own accord over time – and of course there are all sorts of things we can do to increase it further. But that’s another story.

Louise BolotinLouise Bolotin

Asking how long it will take to edit or proofread a document is akin to asking what it will cost. As with pricing, it depends. I know from experience that my average editing speed is around 2,500 words per hour. If I’m given a text that is very clean, which is to say the writer has already gone through it to check for typos, errors and other possible issues, and for clarity, I could work as fast as 3,000 words per hour.

However, I have a number of clients outside the UK whose first language is not English. I’m likely to receive a file from them that has either been written by them or badly translated. For those clients, I will probably have to do a lot of rewriting and thinking through what they actually mean, and my speed will be more like 1,000 to 1,500 words per hour. And I could be as slow as that even when editing for someone who does speak English as their first language, if the text needs a lot of work, or if there are a lot of tables.

I log all this data on a spreadsheet that also records my time for each client, so I have a good idea of my range of speeds for different proficiency levels in English and the condition of the text. The data acts as a good comparison chart when I’m approached by new clients. I always ask for a sample of the text, as I can assess my likely speed and that will form part of the pricing. My speed includes everything: hours spent on the actual editing or proofreading, plus time reading the style guide if there is one and other prepping, plus all the time taken to administrate the job – that’s the number of words divided by the total time spent on the job.

It depends

As with so many aspects of editorial work, the simplest way to sum up the answer to a question about editing speeds is ‘it depends’. Each editor, client and project combination is different, and thus so is the time the edit or proofread will take.

What are your experiences of editing and proofreading speeds? Do you see yourself as ‘fast’ or ‘slow’, or somewhere in the middle? Let us know in the comments below.

Increasing editing and proofreading efficiency

If you are looking for ways to use your working time more efficiently, there are plenty of CIEP resources to help.

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credit: fast owl in flight by Pete Nuij on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Using plain English to maximise immersion in fiction

When most people think of plain English, they think of functional, practical non-fiction texts rather than stories. Here, Katherine Kirk looks at how the plain English principles can be applied to works of fiction.

In this article, I’ll explore these questions:

  • What is plain English and why does it matter for fiction?
  • How can plain English principles improve the fiction reader’s experience?
  • Does writing in plain English mean stripping fiction of its artistry?

Striking the right tone

In my former life as an English teacher, I found that many of my students, in an attempt to elevate their English to the highest possible level, were obfuscating their concepts by becoming fixated on implementing linguistic arabesques which were utterly drenched in verbosity at the expense of clarity.

If you’re still reading after that ridiculous sentence, thank you for sticking around. Most readers wouldn’t.

Using loftier words to sound like a ‘better writer’ is more common than you’d think. Students trying to pad their essays will devour a thesaurus whole and vomit the longest words onto the page. Writers for whom English might not be their first language – and some for whom it is – will often turn to the flashiest word and throw it into a sentence it has no right to be in, having missed the connotations and nuances that make a word fit just right.

Writers who hold the literary arts to be the most profound form of human expression (and rightly so!) might feel that they would be doing their book an injustice by writing it the way they speak, and that readers who come across simple sentences and words might feel that their text lacks colour.

As copyeditors, one of our aims is to have the readers’ interests at heart. Hopefully, this article will help you to show your clients that writing in plain English doesn’t mean writing in boring English, and how simplifying their texts makes it easier for readers to fall in love with their story.

Aristotle said, over two millennia ago, ‘The virtue of style is to be clear … and to be neither mean nor above the prestige of the subject, but appropriate.’ He’s talking about using the right language for the job at hand. The fiction writer’s job is to write a story their readers can escape into. Our job is to help them.

What is plain English and why does it matter?

When most people think of plain English, it’s with regard to non-fiction texts, such as warning labels, legal or government documents, or instructional guides. Laura Ripper and Luke Finley wrote an excellent introduction to plain English for the CIEP blog a few years ago.

Most plain English principles tend to be aimed at businesses and organisations that want their users, clients or readers to be able to access the information as easily as possible. But how does that apply to fiction writers?

Dr Neil James sets out more general principles, saying that plain English writing should have:

  • a reader-centred approach
  • a clear core message
  • the right level of detail
  • a fit-for-purpose structure
  • coherence and flow
  • clear document design
  • a light but professional tone
  • a readable style
  • an active voice
  • an efficient style
  • an error-free text
  • evidence-based testing.

I think these can apply to fiction too. Let’s dive in!

A reader-centred approach

Good writing transmits ideas from the writer’s mind to the reader’s. The reader imagines the world, hears the dialogue, and feels the emotions. That is immersion, and the best way to get the reader into it is by the most direct route possible – using the same language they think in. When this fails, readers write reviews like ‘I felt lost’ or ‘I couldn’t get into it’. Keeping the reader in mind means making the writing accessible to them.

A clear core message

To successfully transmit that message, it needs to be clear. In fiction, the message is multifaceted: the writer is trying to convey who the characters are, what the story is, and why it matters. If the complexity of their language is getting in the way of any of those things, then readers will feel lost. They might lose interest in the story, too. Writers must beware of tangling up the meaning and concealing it behind words readers need to look up, and sentences they’ll need to read three times to decode. They should also be careful of having a storyline so convoluted that the reader needs a wiki to keep track. If the message is clear and accessible, the reader will have a better experience (and come back for more).

The right level of detail

Sometimes in the effort to convey that image clearly to the reader, a writer might veer too far in the opposite direction by being overly specific and spelling out every little detail. Encourage your clients to give your readers the benefit of the doubt and to trust them to fill in the spaces between the words; removing the fluff will make that easier.

A fit-for-purpose structure

Plain English is about more than just sentence-level clarity. If the story jumps from flashback to flashback, wanders aimlessly through nested dreams, explodes into en dash confetti and then suddenly switches to a second-person account written entirely in italics, the reader will absolutely get confused. Some books manage a labyrinthine structure. In Danielewski’s House of Leaves, the labyrinth is the point. For genre fiction, though, the ease with which your reader can navigate the story directly correlates with their ability to be immersed in it.

Coherence and flow

We can’t all be James Joyce or Samuel Beckett; sometimes the best stories are the ones that readers can actually follow. Leading readers on a journey through the story is what good writing is all about. You don’t want to lure them into the woods only to run off, leaving them to either struggle to catch up or get lost entirely. Writers should be walking just ahead, beckoning the reader around the next corner.

Clear document design

Literary fiction can be a tricky genre to get right because many writers think it means you have to be innovative with punctuation, structure and formatting. Experimentation is fine, if it’s done well – but for immersion’s sake, for writing that disappears behind the story, it’s better to give readers what they expect by following established conventions.

A light but professional tone

Readers may feel intimidated by overly formal text, or text that is dense and inaccessible to them. They might respect the writer, but they probably won’t have as much fun reading the story as they would if it were easier for them to understand. Throwing themselves entirely into the writer’s world takes a certain kind of vulnerability, and if readers feel shut out by language they can’t understand, then they’re not going to do that. Using the right language helps readers to trust the writer and to be willing to open themselves up to having their hearts absolutely destroyed by the story. If the writer is too caught up in trying to sound smarter, then they lose the readers’ trust.

A readable style

The key thing is readability. The most beautiful sentence in the world might be a multilayered, poetic work of art, but if it requires a doctorate to unpick and understand, then the writer is excluding the majority of their readership – and for what? To show off their thesaurus?

An active voice

Now, this is where many people who like to give advice to writers tend to overgeneralise and lead writers astray. It’s also where robotic grammar checkers tend to overcorrect at the expense of clarity, flow and readability. Active voice is about making it clear who is doing what, but passive voice isn’t wrong. In the famous opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen isn’t wrong to use the passive voice; she’s making a point, and a sarcastic one at that, setting up the entire premise of the novel.

The passive voice can and should be used with intention. Above all, aim for clarity.

An efficient style

Another bit of writerly advice that well-meaning but often misinformed people give is to cut specific words or sentence structures. It’s silly to make blanket rules when language is infinitely variable. What writers (and editors) can do is try to be as efficient as possible, such as choosing a strong adjective over two weak ones.

Simplicity doesn’t always mean fewer words. Sometimes it means using a few simpler words to convey a complex idea. Having an efficient style means getting the idea from your mind into your reader’s mind without a detour into the dictionary.

An error-free text

The purpose of grammar and punctuation is to eliminate ambiguity and enhance clarity. A logically and grammatically consistent text ensures the reader understands the story the way the writer intended them to. If the writer is trying to force the grammar into doing something it’s not meant to, they’re more likely to make a mistake. They may find themselves tangled up in semicolons and en dashes, and the reader will be just as muddled. That said, fiction is far more forgiving of its rules being bent. Being able to strike a balance between accuracy and a comfortable narrative voice is one of the key skills a fiction copyeditor needs to develop.

Evidence-based testing

What is being tested? It might be the theme or hypothesis behind the story (the ‘what if?’), or it might be the conflict between the characters, or the plausibility of the made-up science. Testing the characters by putting them under pressure is what fuels character development. Show, don’t tell means that fiction writers need to give their readers the evidence of that development by letting them see it unfold.

Reading levels in the UK and US

Putting all these principles together can help editors to make sure their clients’ writing is at an appropriate level for their target readers. According to the Center for Plain Language, the majority of American readers are reading at 8th grade level (12 to 14 years old), and the National Literary Trust reports that many adults in the UK have poor literary skills. So, having the novel in a register that requires a tertiary education to understand means the writer is probably not going to sell many books.

Maintaining the writer’s voice

Some writers may balk at the idea of simplifying their language, thinking that to do so would be to rob the text of any sense of artistry. Editors may worry that they’ll be stripping away the writer’s voice. Be careful to maintain the balance; suggest rather than dictate, and let the writer make the call.

Achieving clarity takes a certain kind of artistry. Do it with the readers in mind and they’ll keep coming back for more.

Wrapping up: plain English in fiction

The elements of plain English writing can apply as much to fiction as to non-fiction texts. Writers and editors can aim for:

  • a reader-centred approach
  • the right level of detail
  • coherence and flow
  • a readable and efficient style
  • an error-free text.

How do you apply plain English principles in your writing or editing? Drop us a line in the comments below.

More guidance on working with plain English

The CIEP has some helpful resources to help you work with plain English.

About Katherine Kirk

Katherine Kirk is a fiction editor who has to force herself to simplify the English in her own writing.

Rumoured to have eaten a dictionary as a child, she suffers from abibliophobia (the fear of running out of books to read). She speaks four and a half Englishes and can often be found muttering to herself about the New York Times Bee’s prejudice against most of them.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: reflection by Jingwei Ke; hedge maze by Tycho Atsma; straight road by Karsten Würth, all on Unsplash.

Flying solo: Turn hindsight into foresight with checklists

In this new column, Sue Littleford looks at running an editorial business and how to make things more efficient and effective.

Checklists. Write them for your processes, use them consciously and keep them updated. Don’t try to make one checklist work for every type of job.

I could stop there, but we’re learning that the active use of checklists is a gamechanger in avoiding mistakes. The World Health Organization published the lifesaving (or merely inconvenience-saving) results of using checklists in 2008. In 2009, one of the drivers behind the checklist movement in medicine, Atul Gawande, published The Checklist Manifesto. Malcolm Gladwell is a fan. Also in 2009, Apollo astronauts called checklists their ‘fourth crewmember’. In 2019, Scotland reported that, since introducing checklists in 2008, surgical mortality rates had fallen by 37%. Checklists have been applied to air safety since the 1930s with great results.

Lives have been saved, money has been saved, time has been saved, reputations have been saved. What’s not to like?

Checklists help in three ways

  1. You need to think through your processes. Once you see them laid out in front of you, look for gaps and replication, and streamline your systems. That’s an immediate efficiency gain on every single job you do.
  2. They keep you focused. Don’t just glance down a checklist you’ve used a gazillion times and say to yourself, ‘Yeah, that looks OK, I’ve probably done everything’. Pay attention as you work through the list, and tick off each item deliberately. (Like exercise equipment, it doesn’t work if it stays in the box.)
  3. They reduce cognitive overload and anxiety. No need to rely on memory for all the steps, nor to worry you’ve missed one.

You could cover your processes for:

  • taking in a new job and setting up your skeleton records
  • communicating with others
  • doing the initial clean-up
  • converting US to UK English
  • maintaining adherence to the client’s style
  • maintaining consistency between chapters
  • final checks and polishing
  • handover and invoicing.

I’m sure you’ll think of more, relevant to your own practice.

Tailor your checklists to suit each client and their workflow, and each type of job. A proofreading checklist will look very different from a copyediting checklist, which will look very different from a manuscript critique checklist.

The cardinal error is to aim for one big checklist to cover everything. That’s a bad idea for two reasons:

  • you simply can’t cover everything. The unexpected happens, the novel happens; and
  • long checklists are confusing and difficult to follow. They become wearisome and self-defeating.

Instead, have a separate, short checklist for each part of a job.

What a checklist is not

It’s not a list of instructions. It doesn’t contain the detail of how you do your job. It doesn’t remove your autonomy (after all, it’s your checklist and you can change it). It’s also not your first attempt – you will find you need to refine it quite a bit, initially, as you figure out what you need to be reminded about to work well and consistently, as well as what you never forget, and therefore don’t need to include.

What a checklist is

It’s a set of reminders to do the stuff that would make you look stupid if you missed it, and to do the stuff you find you often forget, even though you know you should always do it. It’s your failsafe. And it’s a timesaver, as you work efficiently consistently.

What a good checklist is

It’s a practical, precise, brief and unambiguous reminder of the essential steps you need to take. It underlines your priorities, it stops you forgetting the important stuff in a moment of inattention and it makes you look good to your client or boss.

The big secret: checklists go out of date

I have a client that I’ve worked with for several years, starting out on books and then becoming the sole copyeditor for a journal. I could use the same checklist for both, right? Same publisher? Every time, I sighed heavily about bits of the checklist that were irrelevant, and about the extra bits I needed to remember to check, different for the journal and books. Then the publisher updated their style guide – about a fifth of the checklist was defunct.

Finally, I decided it was time to review the checklists I use most often. I realised that the core of my final-checks checklist had stayed essentially unchanged for about ten years. Ouch. What I’d needed to spell out for myself back then, now only needed a short reminder or could be omitted altogether.

I’d been dotting about the checklist because the flow was no longer logical now I’d matured as a copyeditor. If you’re jumping around your checklist, it’s no longer methodical; it’s an accident waiting to happen.

A checklist for checklists

1. Document your processes

  • List out what you do for each stage of each type of job and for each client.
  • Do you tackle these tasks in the most efficient and logical order? Shunt things around until the sequence is right.

2. Write a checklist that’s no more than one page long

  • If it’s longer, ask yourself why. Are you trying to write an end-to-end checklist? Stop! Short checklists work better than long ones. Don’t include details.
  • Write the checklist as bullet points, and use the empty checkbox symbol as the bullet (I like Wingdings character codes 113, 109 and 114. In Word, Insert tab > Symbols > Font > Wingdings > Character code).
  • Or set out the checklist as a table. I do that if I have to change a bunch of chapters from US to UK English, for example, with the chapters as the rows and each feature that needs attention as the columns.
  • Print out the checklist to use it. Physically tick things off as you complete each task. Your eye is less likely to betray you than working down an onscreen list, but if you’re really trying to reduce your use of paper, use highlighting or set up checkbox content controls in each list to ensure you miss nothing.

3. Set up each checklist as a template

  • As you start each job, open the final-checks checklist you’ll be using and save it specifically for that job. As you work on the text, add to the checklist any tailored checks you need to make at the end of the work – author’s tics, layout issues, anything at all that will add to the accuracy of the finished job.

4. Keep the checklist fresh to your eyes

  • It’s easy to stop paying attention to something you see all the time. To stop your checklists from becoming wallpaper, change the typeface every few uses.

5. Review your checklists

  • How well did the job you just finished go?
  • Were there any catches made at the last moment that could usefully be added to a checklist?
  • How well did the checklists support each aspect of the job? Has this client changed their style or requirements?
  • As you become more experienced, can your checklist be condensed?
  • Have you started using a new tool that should be added to a checklist – a new macro, perhaps?

6. Review your processes

  • You’re not standing still: with every job you gain experience and increase your competence. Review your processes periodically to check whether you’re being as efficient as you can – diarise reminders to do this, or maybe add it as the final item in the last checklist for any given job.
  • Review constantly: be alert to your weak spots. What does your eye tend to glide past? What tasks do you like least and may be inclined to skip or rush? What feedback have clients given you?

Thoughtfully crafted and well-maintained checklists turn hindsight into foresight. And that’s invaluable.

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford is the author of the CIEP guide Going Solo, now in its second edition. She went solo with her own freelance copyediting business, Apt Words, in March 2007 and specialises in scholarly humanities and social sciences. Before that, she had been the payroll manager for a major government department for some 14 years. Her whole career had been markedly numbers based – both in central government and in the private sector – even though she became the go-to wordsmith everywhere she worked. She eventually switched to words full-time, transferring her skills and experience to hone her business efficiency and effectiveness.


Photo credit: hand-written checklist by StockSnap, both on Pixabay.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Commissioning, editing and proofreading figures

By Liz Jones

‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’ We’ve probably all heard this said, and perhaps we’ve even said it ourselves. But – as so often in life – the truth is not as clear-cut as that. In the materials we edit, it’s not always a case of either-or, words versus pictures. Often text and images work together to convey complex information. But the figures that support a text (or that a text supports) can only function at their best if they are commissioned carefully to work as part of a complete editorial package, and if any text associated with them is written, edited and proofread just as carefully as the main or body text.

What is a figure?

In CIEP courses in the core skills of proofreading and copyediting, a figure is defined as ‘any piece of artwork (line-drawing, photo, graph, etc), together with its caption’. Figures appear in all genres of book, from children’s picture books and stories to textbooks, workbooks, technical manuals, and all kinds of non-fiction books – from practical to aspirational to academic. Aside from books, we encounter them in all sorts of written communications, from newsletters and press releases to websites, reports, white papers, advertisements … In short, where don’t we find them?

But editors are word people, you might be thinking. Aren’t images beyond their remit? Well, no. Considering the images that work alongside the text – and are often indivisible from its key message – is a crucial part of most copyediting or proofreading work.

Aside from the image itself, a figure will usually have a title or caption, which the CIEP defines as ‘the explanatory words that appear below (or above or beside) an illustration or figure’. There may also be annotations (very short labels) explaining specific parts of the figure, either placed in the relevant position or connected with leader lines.

If the figure is a graph or chart, the axes or sectors will also be labelled with text.

Purpose and function of figures

Figures might be used in text for various reasons:

  • They give the reader information that cannot be easily or effectively expressed using text alone.
  • They can be used to amplify or clarify the message of a passage of text.
  • They work as visual devices that break up large amounts of text and make it more readable.
  • If the document is about a visual subject, the figures might be more important than the text, even if both are necessary.

How to write a good brief

Sometimes editors are responsible for writing the briefs for figures, whether they are illustrations, photos or graphs. This is especially likely if the editor is project managing or development editing.

The person producing the image, or the picture researcher, will need as much information as you can provide on the following:

  • What information the image needs to convey – this might include a sketch, or it might be a list of points to cover
  • Size of the intended image
  • What colours to use
  • Guidance on the preferred style
  • Any cultural considerations, such as images that are not suitable for a particular audience
  • Visual reference materials, if available and helpful
  • The budget – most images are not free!

Reproducing or redrawing figures

If figures are reproduced from another source, or even if they are redrawn based on another source, then the copyright holder of the original image will need to give you permission to use that figure. They might charge a fee for this, or they might simply stipulate how they should be credited. Some credit lines must appear alongside the figure; others can be placed at the end of the document.

Make sure you allow time in the schedule for clearing image permissions.

Writing and editing figure text

Captions should ideally be written in such a way that that they could stand alone and provide useful information about the figure, even if the reader reads none of the other text. Of course, we probably tend to hope that the reader reads every word we write from beginning to end. But in the real world, we have to accept that this doesn’t always happen. People have short attention spans, and they skip about when they read. Captions should also not simply repeat body text word for word, but add to it, and give the reader specific information on the visuals. For a document to feel authoritative and valuable, it’s crucial to write captions that work hard.

Everyone’s life is made much easier if text that appears as part of the figure is editable, though this is not always possible. If it’s not editable by someone with easy access to the files, make sure to get it proofread early, to allow changes to be made by the illustrator, for example. Bear in mind that the more words appear as intrinsic elements in images, the more of a problem this will be for any editions of the publication in other languages.

When an editor is assessing the scope of their work, they should make sure they include the figures in their fee calculations – both checking their content from an editorial point of view and editing any associated text, which can add considerably to the overall word count and the time needed for the job.

Checklist of common problems

Finally, for anyone tasked with proofreading figures, here are some common problems that crop up time and time again:

  • Figure numbering – out of sequence, missing numbers, inconsistency
  • Annotations pointing to the wrong part of an image
  • Inconsistent capitalisation of captions or annotations
  • Inconsistent punctuation of captions or annotations – especially terminal full stops
  • Captions repeated, or applied to the wrong image(s)
  • Captions that seem to contradict the image (for example referring to a colour that looks different in the picture)
  • Figure is flipped, so text is back to front.

The most important message in all of this is that figures appearing as part of a document should be considered at every stage of the editorial process. They should not be dismissed as being mere design elements, or someone else’s responsibility. When authors and editors ensure that figures and text work together effectively, they are a powerful tool for communication.

Liz Jones has been an editor since 1998, and has worked on thousands of projects, involving millions of words and a whole host of other variables. She specialises in highly illustrated non-fiction for a range of clients, and also works as a commissioning editor on the CIEP information team.

 


Photo credits: flowers by Edward Howell; chart by Isaac Smith, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

The A to D of writing multiple choice tests

By Julia Sandford-Cooke

Multiple choice tests are hard to get right. And I’m not just thinking of the time I scored 19% in a school physics test – statistically less than if I’d just guessed every answer. It’s actually really tricky to write high-quality questions and answer options that genuinely assess knowledge and understanding. As with a lot of the topics discussed on this blog, it’s a type of writing and editing that seems easy until you try it.

What do I mean by multiple choice (or multi-choice) questions and answers? They’re the ones with a standalone question (the stem) where the correct answer (the key) is hidden among three or four wrong answers (distractors). The people responding (let’s call them students) have to choose one or more answers from the options given. For example:

What noise does a cat make?

      1. Woof
      2. Moo
      3. Meow [key]
      4. Baa

And what do I know about multiple choice questions? Well, quite a bit. I have edited hundreds, maybe thousands, of them for one of the UK’s biggest test providers over the past 15 years. I’ve also written and edited them for, well, multiple other contexts, including textbooks, revision guides, workbooks and online learning materials.

A good multi-choice test is an objective measurement of a student’s knowledge, which can be taken and marked online, with instant feedback. However, from my experience, authors usually don’t know what a good () – or bad ()– multi-choice test looks like. They might be experts in their subject but they’ve never been taught how to actually write a test. And there’s a lot they should know, involving some pretty complex pedagogical concepts. I don’t have space to go into Bloom’s Taxonomy here but the goal is to ensure that the test is an unobtrusive channel for assessing the student’s knowledge.

So here’s a quick primer, covering four common problems.

Problem A: The question doesn’t make sense

The question must be pitched appropriately for who is taking the test. Unless it’s a Key Stage 2 SATs test, the aim is to find out what students know, not how well they can read or understand long words. Clarity is vital. The wording of question and answers should be concise and unambiguous, assessing knowledge, not literacy skills. There is usually no need to fill the question with irrelevant and confusing information:

Pet cats may be kept inside or outside, or be able to move freely between the house and garden. Sometimes neighbouring cats can enter the house in this way but owners can allow only their cat to come in by installing a special cat flap. How?

What type of cat flap prevents the wrong cats from entering the house?

Students shouldn’t have to waste time under exam conditions trying to work out what they are being asked. The question should be self-contained so that it makes sense without the answers.

My cat Pixel is:

      1. tortoiseshell.
      2. black and white. [key]
      3. ginger.
      4. tabby.

What colour is my cat Pixel?

      1. Tortoiseshell
      2. Black and white [key]
      3. Ginger
      4. Tabby

Avoid colloquialisms and unnecessarily complex language. Of course, you might want to find out whether students know a particular technical term, but the structure of the question should make that intention clear and direct.

A cat is a digitigrade. What does this mean?

      1. It has a different number of toes on its front and back paws.
      2. It walks on its toes. [key]
      3. It stands with its toes flat on the ground.
      4. It has claws.

Technical terms applied in the wrong context might also make for credible distractors.

Opinions differ on negatively phrased questions. Some people argue that they’re confusing, while others say they make students read the question more carefully. I think they’re fine under the right circumstances, and as long as the negative word (eg ‘not’) is obvious (eg formatted
in bold).

Problem B: The distractors are too obvious

I see this issue more than any other. The author knows what they want the students to know but struggles to think of plausible distractors.

What is the common name for the species felis catus?

      1. Cat
      2. Dog
      3. Elephant
      4. Human

If the correct answer can be easily guessed without any background knowledge, the question has failed in its purpose. And a test isn’t the time to try to be funny.

If it’s too hard to think of wrong answers, perhaps it’s the wrong question. Try asking it in a way that allows the distractors to be worth considering. They could be frequent misconceptions, commonly asked questions, otherwise true statements or other related terms or concepts that the student might know. For example:

What is the Latin term for the domestic cat?

      1. Felidae [Latin term for the family ‘cat’]
      2. Felis catus [key]
      3. Panthera [the genus of cats that roar]
      4. Felis silvestris [European wild cat]

All the answer options should have a similar sentence structure that follows on logically from the question. It’s the same principle as wording bullet lists to follow platform sentences – errors may unintentionally draw attention to the wrong (or right) answers.

Cats are crepuscular because they:

      1. they like to knead your laps with their paws.
      2. of their rough tongues.
      3. like to go out at dawn and dusk. [key]
      4. prefers to go out during the day.

Option lengths should be consistent – often, the correct answer is obvious because it is much longer or shorter than the distractors, and phrased slightly differently.

Where does Pixel most like to be stroked?

      1. On his back
      2. Around his face, ears, chin and at the base of his tail, where his scent glands are [key]
      3. On his tummy
      4. On his paws

Pixel deep in thought during a maths test

Avoid ‘All of the above’ – it’s a copout. Students only need to realise that more than one answer could be right to reasonably guess that ‘All of the above’ is the correct answer.

What is a cat’s favourite pastime?

      1. Sleeping
      2. Being stroked
      3. Sitting on laps
      4. All of the above.

With this example, you could also argue that ‘favourite’ implies a single pastime that the cat enjoys more than any other. ‘All of the above’, therefore, is doubly confusing.

‘None of the above’ is also a meaningless option, as it does not identify whether the student knows the correct answer.

On a related note, avoid acronym questions. Not only could a student successfully argue that a collection of letters stands for anything you want it to, but it’s also hard to write realistic distractors for a specific acronym.

What does RSPCA stand for?

      1. Really Special People’s Cats Association
      2. Royal Society for the Protection of Cats and Animals
      3. Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
      4. Running Short of Possible Cat Answers

If the test isn’t delivered via software that randomises the position of the answers each time it’s administered, vary the placement of the key throughout the test, to avoid any patterns.

Problem C: The questions and/or answers are ambiguous

This is the opposite problem to the obvious distractors. A student may find that more than one option could be correct, but a multi-choice test doesn’t give the opportunity for students to answer ‘it depends’.

What noise does a cat make?

      1. Woof
      2. Moo
      3. Meow [key?]
      4. Purr [key?]

Authors are sometimes advised to ask students to find the ‘best’ answer rather than the ‘correct’ answer but this rather skates over the need for precise wording. In this case, it would be better to ask a more specific question that tests a higher level of understanding:

What noise do cats make to communicate with humans?

      1. Woof
      2. Moo
      3. Meow [key]
      4. Purr

Don’t ask ‘What would you do?’, as the student could easily defend any answer with ‘Well, I would do that!’. Similarly, avoid anything that could be seen as subjective or absolute:

Why are cats so cute?
Why do cats love fish?
Why does Pixel only come into my office when I’m in a Zoom meeting?

But it’s also important not to be too specific. Avoid closed questions – they limit the distractors:

Are whiskers a type of hair?

      1. Yes
      2. No
      3. Sometimes
      4. Meaningless fourth distractor

Problem D: The test isn’t tested

It’s not always possible to try out the questions before using them, but they should at least be run past a colleague. You might know what you mean but other people might not.

As with any edited text, develop a style guide that encompasses any aspects that could be inconsistent – the use of numbers, units and punctuation, for example.

Remember to provide students with clear instructions on how you expect them to take the test. Ensure they know what learning objectives, topics or concepts are being tested, and whether they can refer to notes or use aids such as a calculator.

Tests that are to be administered live (as opposed to being used as self-revision in a textbook) should be kept on a spreadsheet that states clearly when and how the questions have been used.

If possible, keep anonymised data on how students answered each question. There’s quite a bit of analytical science relating to this but, for general tests, all that’s really important is to ask the following:

  • Were there any distractors that nobody chose?
  • Were there any answers that everyone got right?
  • Can variations in students’ results be explained by their different levels of knowledge alone?

Learn from the data and revisit the test to change elements as necessary. Consider, too, whether a multi-choice test format is suitable for assessing everything that needs to be assessed. A bit like this blog post, some topics lend themselves to longer, more evaluative responses, and can’t be properly examined within the constraints of a few options.

But, done right, are multiple choice tests effective tools for assessing learning, useful revision aids and direct channels for measuring knowledge? Well, yes – all of the above …

Julia Sandford-CookeJulia Sandford-Cooke of WordFire Communications has more than 20 years’ experience of publishing and marketing. When she’s not hanging out with other editors (virtually or otherwise), she writes and edits textbooks, proofreads anything that’s put in front of her and posts short, often grumpy, book reviews on her blog, Ju’s Reviews.

 


Photo credits: multiple cats – The Lucky Neko; hand and paw – Humberto Arellano; whiskers – Kevin Knezic, all on Unsplash

Proofread by Alice McBrearty, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

CIEP social media round-up: June and July 2020

In June and July the CIEP looked to create, as well as curate, our social media content.

A CIEP commitment to anti-racism

In June, the CIEP – like many other organisations – sought to respond meaningfully as we reached a tipping point globally: a point at which anti-racism demands more of us than lip service to dismantling structural inequality. On 5 June, we published A CIEP commitment to anti-racism across our social media channels, setting out five steps that the CIEP will take to contribute to change.

‘As editors and proofreaders,’ we noted, ‘there is so much that we can each do to make space for and amplify voices that have historically been and continue to be marginalised and silenced.’ A warm reaction on Facebook (87 likes/loves and 14 shares), Twitter (71 likes and 25 retweets) and LinkedIn (117 likes/loves/applause) demonstrated how keenly this resonates. Both privately and publicly, members expressed emotion at being part of a membership eager to take action; some followed up swiftly on this commitment, forming a working group to translate the CIEP’s words into practice.

Throughout June, the CIEP social media team curated relevant content, including Do the work: an anti-racist reading list, and promoted Black voices, spanning #PublishingPaidMe, a campaign asking authors to reveal their advances and expose race-based pay gaps, a call from the Black Writers’ Guild for sweeping changes in UK publishing and a celebration of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s success as the first Black British author to top the UK’s official book charts. We also shared Alex Kapitan, the Radical Copyeditor, explaining why saying ‘All Lives Matter’ makes things worse, not better, Sophie Playle’s thoughts about how to avoid unconscious bias in your creative writing, and a list of 5 steps freelance editors can take to combat racism. And these efforts continue, the CIEP’s social media being key to our commitment ‘to [seek] out and [amplify] BAME voices and the voices of editors/proofreaders of colour worldwide’.

All the free stuff

As we went into July we continued creating social media content by publicising a range of free-for-everyone and free-for-members fact sheets and focus papers across all our platforms, including a love letter to editing cunningly disguised as a focus paper by our honorary president, David Crystal, called ‘Imagine an editor’. This was popular with our audiences, but we also found that explainers, such as ‘Training for proofreading or copyediting’ and ‘The publishing workflow’, went down well too.

 

Of these, our fact sheet on ‘Proofreading or copyediting?’, which could be used to explain to clients the differences between the two disciplines, went down a storm. We also posted CIEP quizzes 1, 2 and 3 across our platforms, in case any of our audiences had missed them. These got a particularly good response on LinkedIn, with ‘pub quiz’ participants comparing scores and one follower commenting: ‘Fun and educational every time 😊’.

Never forgetting our bookshelves, or the location of the toilet

Pieces on bookshelves, how to organise them, and the books we put on them are always popular with our audiences. In June and July we offered articles (some from the archives) on a bookshelf illusion mural in Utrecht; a list of all the ways to organise your bookshelf, including using the Dewey Decimal System; organising books by colour only; (if more inspiration were needed) how 11 writers organise their personal libraries; and (if all else fails, presumably) the artistic arrangement of books around a person or persons in order to recreate a series of dramatic scenes.

We also took a virtual trip to a writer’s studio in a garden, which could just as easily have been an editor’s studio, we thought (or hoped). One Facebook follower asked: ‘Does it have a toilet? Not going in the bushes …’. Apparently it does, but it’s concealed behind a secret panel. Here’s hoping it’s easily found in moments of need.

Talking of virtual trips, our Facebook followers made the role of books in their lives very clear when, on 1 June, we posted a link to a story about how Covid-19 is forcing authors to change their novels in ways such as avoiding references to flying and including details such as temperature checks. ‘I want to read about a world that’s not burning and going down the drain. I read to escape, not to be reminded that I can’t leave the house’ posted one follower. Oops. Luckily, later in the month we had the opportunity to share an article listing ‘50 brilliant books to transport you this summer’, and then even later (in July) to introduce our audiences to a piece that reviewed novels as if they were travel destinations. The reviewer of Les Misérables, in ‘A misérables trip to Paris’, advises ‘If you’re going to visit Paris, don’t go during revolution, I’d say, or at least don’t bring the kids’. Wise words indeed.

Loving letters

Another thing guaranteed to transport you is a simple handwritten letter, and during lockdown people have been turning to this lo-tech but lovely form of communication. We shared a story about a Colombian library’s campaign to spread positivity through anonymous letters, and a New York Times piece (restricted access) reminding us of the value of letters in these email-soaked days: ‘I do trade big, juicy emails with some people in my life, but receiving them isn’t quite the same as slitting open a letter, taking it to a big chair and settling in for the 20 minutes it takes to devour it’. We were also reminded of the value of using letters in marketing, with a Throwback Thursday blog by Louise Harnby which urged us not to forget the old ways.

Time for fun

As ever, we made space on our social media platforms for fun items, such as Futuracha, the font that changes as you type. And for anyone who has trouble remembering the difference between ‘born’ and ‘borne’, and ‘affect’ and ‘effect’, we posted the clever homophone artwork of Bruce Worden of Homophones, Weakly. Finally, ‘Words we know because of Star Trek’ went down well. So, until the next social media round-up, we send you this sincere wish: live long and prosper, friends.

Don’t miss a thing in editing and proofreading. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.


Photo credits: letter and coffee – Freddy Castro on Unsplash

Proofread and posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Not working with words

By Liz Jones

An editor attempting to describe their job to a non-editor will often talk about ‘working with words’. This is essentially what we do: we take a client’s raw text, and we make it fit for purpose. But working with words is not all that an editor does. This post looks at some tasks editors might do as part of an editing job, as well as separate but related roles.

Non-textual editorial tasks

There are many things an editor might do in the course of a typical editing job that have nothing at all to do with words.

Checking illustrations, photos and other figures

Many of the things we work on involve pictures and diagrams, whether we’re editing books, websites, marketing materials or annual reports. Sometimes we’ll be specifically briefed to check the figures in a document, especially if they do contain text, but often this expectation will be implicit, and it’s down to the common sense of the editor to make sure that if the text mentions five green apples, the accompanying image doesn’t show three red tomatoes. It’s common for photos to appear with a wrong caption, or for annotations to be misplaced.

It’s also sensible to check that photos haven’t been flipped – which might be fine, but not if they depict something that includes lettering, such as a shop sign, or people carrying out activities that have a specific orientation, like driving cars. Other things editors need to be alert to are items that look out of place or even inappropriate – like red telephone boxes in a publication with a global audience, or people drinking alcohol or smoking in a book for children.

Checking numbers and dates

Many editors say they love words but hate numbers – but still it’s necessary to engage with numbers in all forms, in most of the work that we do. Folios need checking for a start, and cross-references. The degree of elision in number and date ranges must be consistent, and this will often be specified in a house style. Many numbers that we encounter need sense-checking, too. For example, would it be feasible to describe a 1,500km car journey as having taken four hours? Could that historical person possibly have died before they were born? And in certain types of work, such as medical editing, numerically expressed quantities are literally a matter of life and death.

Checking typographical details

Meanwhile, being able to spot a rogue italic comma is not a matter of life and death, but it is arguably still important in its way. And the difference between a hyphen and an en dash may seem trivial to some, but a document that has all its typographical details correct will somehow seem more finished, more credible, than one that has been carelessly formatted – even if the reader can’t quite put their finger on why. Typographic details help to signpost the reader – often unconsciously – and when correct they all add up to a seamless reading experience, enabling the message to be imparted with minimum fuss and maximum accuracy.

Checking layout features

An important part of editing – and proofreading in particular – is ensuring that the layout of a piece of text, along with any accompanying images and graphics, makes sense. You’ll need to develop an eye for ‘page furniture’, whether you’re working in print or online: running heads, menus, pull quotes, breadcrumbs … Often different elements within a larger document will work together and interlink, and each will have a particular meaning, which may be more intuitive than explicit to the reader – but as the editor you will need to understand the rationale behind such design decisions, to be able to assess whether all layout features are present and correct.

Bear in mind, too, that it’s easy when editing to be great at spotting the tiny textual details, and then overlook a typo in a title ten times the size of the rest of the text. Or not to notice that a box or a panel is the wrong colour for its function, or that an entire section of a book is labelled wrongly. One of the hallmarks of an outstanding editor is the ability to step back and see the bigger picture as well as focusing on the tiny details.

Related roles

Some editors take on roles that are related to editorial work and may even be combined with it, but use a different set of skills.

Permissions

Many of the documents editors work on include images or text that come from somewhere else. Sometimes they can be used with a simple acknowledgement, without asking for permission from the rights holder. But depending on the context, and the amount of material being reproduced, often it will be necessary to seek permission. An editor might be asked to handle this aspect of a project alongside their editorial work, or it could be subcontracted as a discrete job. Either way, it’s a useful skill for an editor to be able to offer, and the CIEP now runs a course on copyright for editorial professionals.

Picture research

Sometimes, editors go beyond just looking at pictures, and help to choose them. Picture research can be a really interesting facet to our work. Just as when you’re checking images that have already been placed, you’ll need to keep an eye out for details that fit with the text that needs to be illustrated. Consider the audience, and ensure that any picture you use works as hard as possible to support or augment the text, to ensure maximum value of paid-for images. Some images are free, or may be used freely with a credit (see for example Unsplash or Pixabay). Others must be paid for, and the cost per picture will depend on the size of the image and the type and reach of the publication.

Project management

Many freelance editors are employed to manage editorial projects. This can involve setting and monitoring budgets and schedules, as well as commissioning contributors such as authors and illustrators, and freelancers like designers, editors and indexers. Attention to textual detail is still important, but at this level of work you’ll need to be able to cope with tight schedules and increased responsibility, as well as keeping a range of people updated on progress at all stages of the project. You’ll also need to assess the work of others and provide feedback where necessary. The CIEP offers a course in editorial project management, and it also publishes a guide to this subject if you want to find out more.

 Liz Jones has been an editor since 1998, and has worked on thousands of projects, involving millions of words and a whole host of other variables. She specialises in highly illustrated non-fiction for a range of clients, and also works as a commissioning editor on the CIEP information team.

 


Photo credits: open book – Blair Fraser; letters – Octavian Dan, both on Unsplash.

Proofread by Victoria Hunt, Intermediate Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Editing fiction and non-fiction: can you do both?

By Sara Donaldson

Can you have it all?

When you start out you might want to become a brilliant fiction editor. One who works on amazing stories that make your heart flutter when you spot someone reading them on the train. Or you might want to work on excellent non-fiction that delights and informs those around you. Many editors are drawn to one or the other.

But what if, like me, you love working on both fiction and non-fiction?

When I started out, I moved from indexing to editing and project managing almost in the blink of an eye. While I learned on the job I was also working through editorial training, so it was a natural progression to carry on with non-fiction. But when the opportunity to take part in a fiction editing workshop at a SfEP conference came up, it was too good an opportunity to miss. And the rest, as they say, is history.

It really is history – that’s my speciality. But I’ve worked on general fiction, historical fiction, women’s fiction and lately, one of my favourites, crime fiction. All while editing non-fiction too.

If you want to work on both fiction and non-fiction there are some things that are roughly the same, but there are also some obvious differences. Bear in mind that my experiences may differ from those of other editors – we all have different ways of working and varying backgrounds – but this might help you decide if both are possible for you.

Is it for you?

Dare I say it, but no editor can edit every type of writing. At least not well. You may be great at editing historical fiction, but rubbish at science fiction, and with non-fiction you may need to be a subject specialist. The more subtle editing often needs someone with a deep knowledge of the subject, or a willingness to learn it quickly. As an academic subject librarian I worked closely with law and civil engineering books, but there’s no way I would edit one.

Before jumping into a new type of editing, make sure it’s really for you. Look at what you read and your subject knowledge – if you don’t read fantasy and sci-fi you might find it difficult to come to terms with genre expectations, jargon and world-building. And you might want to steer clear of scientific non-fiction if you don’t know the difference between the types of ion.

Make sure you’re trained for whichever type of editing you want to do, then there’s no reason why you can’t mix and match, and enjoy the variety that brings.

Similarities

There are definitely similarities between both types of editing: the most obvious are the technicalities of how you approach the documents.

Make sure everything is there

When you receive the files, look through them and make sure you have everything you should – is the word count what you expected, is everything there (check chapter headings, sections and any appendices, tables, images, etc), and is there anything you weren’t expecting? Even in fiction, whole sections can be missing or duplicated.

Pre- and post-edits

Generally speaking your checks will be the same whether you’re working on fiction or non-fiction. I tend to create a style sheet, if one hasn’t been provided, through using Paul Beverley’s Docalyse and a few other macros that let me know the author’s preferences. Then a spellcheck and a sweep through with PerfectIt make sure I’m ready to edit.

Logical flow and no plot holes

With both types of editing you have to make sure the narrative is logical and there are no plot holes. Are the chapters coherent, in the right order, and does the narrative flow logically and with ease? You might come across plot holes – or ‘holes in the argument’ or missing information in the case of non-fiction – that you need to sort out.

Differences between fiction and non-fiction

Despite the similarities, there are enough differences to … make a difference.

Plot sheet/character sheet vs chapter diagram/mock-up

When you’re editing fiction it makes sense to have detailed plot and character sheets to make sure that everything flows well and your brown-haired, green-eyed heroine doesn’t change physical characteristics halfway through the book.

However, when you’re editing non-fiction you’re more likely to have a detailed list of the chapters and the information they contain, perhaps with a mock-up of the book’s insides, and lists of tables, images and diagrams. It’s crucial to make sure that nothing’s missing, you know where everything fits in and that the size and density of the chapters reflect the weight of what’s contained in them.

Style guides

Often fiction authors don’t have style sheets or use guides, whereas non-fiction authors may already use them. Academics especially may use a preferred style guide and should be able to access a copy for you; if they’re an independent non-fiction author, without a style guide/sheet, you might have to work closely with them to pinpoint expected conventions.

Plot, characterisation and consistency vs clarity and organisational flow

With all writing the content needs to be easily understood by the target audience.

One common problem with non-fiction is that you might have multiple authors to contend with. It feels like herding cats sometimes, so you must keep everything in check. You have to make sure the terminology is consistent throughout and that everyone is working towards the same clear message.

With a fiction book you usually only have to deal with one author, so plot, characterisation and consistency can be easier to deal with as you get used to their writing tics.

Levels of intervention

These can differ greatly. With fiction editing you can be more hands-on with the structure and development of the book, but non-fiction will often be under the guidance of the author (and/or publisher). You might have to work with facts, references and notes. Ask any editor who has to work with reference lists – they can be a love/hate relationship and can take a LOT of time to go through.

How to switch from one to the other

If you do think you can cope with the complexities of both fiction and non-fiction, you’re going to have to decide how you manage your workload. Personally, I tend to work on only one or two jobs at a time, so I find it easy to switch between the two. As an editor, my brain tends to compartmentalise, so I find it easier to split my day and work on non-fiction in the morning, when my logical brain is more active, then move over to fiction on an afternoon when I’m more relaxed and open to the flow of a narrative. If time allows I might work one whole day on one, then work the next on the other.

How you work will depend on what makes you comfortable, but once the pre-edit is done it makes sense to allow a chunk of time for fiction, to allow you to get into the flow. But you have to be meticulous in all your work – fiction is definitely not an easy option, and non-fiction doesn’t have to be hard.

So can you have it all?

Yes, you can. But respect yourself and your clients – make sure you’re trained and have the expertise to edit to the best of your capability. CIEP has excellent courses, such as Introduction to Fiction Editing, that will make sure you have the skills to build upon.

Sara Donaldson is an Advanced Professional Member of CIEP who works on both fiction and non-fiction, specialising in history and heritage. She’s also a professional genealogist and content writer – when not working she can be found lost in online archives for no reason whatsoever, or in her local theatre.

 


If you want to widen or deepen your editorial skills, have a look at the full range of CIEP courses.


Photo credits: books – Paul Schafer; writing – Priscilla Du Preez, both on Unsplash.

Proofread by Kelly Urgan, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.